In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced and coined a new concept to the study of feminism, women, and gender: Intersectionality. By emphasizing the problematic aspects of feminism’s lack of interest in how gender, race, and sex are interlocked and construct each other, intersectionality has become the primary analytic tool that feminist and antiracist scholars deploy for theorizing identity and oppression (Nash, 2008). Some scholars even talk about “the intersectional turn” (Mattsson, 2010, p. 7). Intersectionality has only recently been employed in biblical interpretation, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza finds it “more than surprising” that scholarship of early Christianity has not embraced the “rich body of critical feminist work on intersectionality” (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2009, pp. 4–5). Although the theory itself is rather new to the field, the concerns of it—that oppression parameters are connected and identities are constructed by complex intersections of social categories—has been vibrant in feminist biblical interpretation for several decades, as for example articulated by the Hebrew Bible scholar Sarojini Nadar: “racism is sexism is classism is homophobia” (Nadar, 2009, p. 226).

What Is Intersectionality?

Within recent interdisciplinary research the concept of intersectionality has gained increasing currency. When white Western feminists in the 1960s and 1970s started to criticize male-centrism, their insights about oppression “as a woman” tended to conflate the experiences of one particular group of women with those of all women. In the early 1980s African American scholar-activists in particular started to question the hegemony of white women within the feminist movement. They argued that the experiences of African-American women are not shaped only by race but also by gender, social class, and sexuality. Awareness of how different social divisions cannot be understood in isolation, but are mutually modifying and reinforcing each other, is central to intersectional studies.

Instead of examining gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, disability, and age as separate categories of oppression, intersectionality explores how these categories overlap and mutually modify and reinforce each other. Every person belongs to more than one category, and faced with discrimination it might be difficult to articulate which correlative system of oppression is at work. Various oppressive mechanisms can work together and create new hierarchies and systems of discrimination.

One important issue to discuss is whether intersectionality, although aiming at highlighting complexity, as an implicit side-effect nevertheless functions to uphold the given categories. Are the categories such as gender, class, and race stable and already given? While it is argued that so-called third-wave feminism has responded to the collapse of the category “women,” intersectionality needs the categories as a premise when highlighting overlapping categories. One way out of this dilemma is to use intersectionality to nuance identities and challenge the stability of any group identity. Rather than using impulses from poststructural thinking to argue that categories do not exist, intersectionality can destabilize ancient and modern power structures and ways of organizing identity that employ gender, class, race, and so on. This combination of reading strategies seems to follow recent trends in which interpreters embrace multilayered approaches and prefer to draw on a diversity of theoretical thoughts within the humanities as well as the social sciences.

Intersectionality originates from discourses in which it functioned as a tool to understand discrimination and the subordinated, but it may be employed in order to understand difference in general and how identities are negotiated. To move beyond uniformity and simplification is useful to understand identities, regardless of where a person is located in the hierarchies.

Asking the Other Question.

How the concept or theory of intersectionality can contribute to a methodology has been suggested by Mari Matsuda and her way of “asking the other question”:

"The way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method I call “ask the other question.” When I see something that looks racist, I ask, “Where is the patriarchy in this?” When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, “Where are the class interests in this?”" (Matsuda, 1990, p. 1189)

Her insights may help us look for what is not necessarily visible at the surface. When readers are enthusiastic about the women at the empty tomb and their role in the oral transmission, for example, Matsuda may challenges us to ask about female slaves or children and those who did not know the language. In addition, intersectionality offers tools to decode complex identity, regardless of where in the hierarchy the character to be discussed can be located. In fact, one of the benefits of intersectionality is that it emphasizes the relational nature of identity and highlights interaction between the categories as a separate object for analysis (Saga, 2011, p. 236–237).

Intersectionality also challenges interpreters to be critical of their own production of knowledge. My scholarly work as a feminist concerns how gender hierarchies work to exclude women, in past and present; however, intersectionality helps one realize that although it is important to be sensitive to issues of marginality, one must also be aware of certain hierarchies. It is not only gender systems that construct dominant discourses, silencing the voices from the margins: sexism, today and in history, overlaps with other systems of discrimination. If interpreters pay attention only to elite women, we risk reproducing and legitimating the oppression of marginalized women and men. Although ancient sources are most interested in the elite, intersectionality can help fill in the gaps by providing tools to unpack the rhetoric of the given text and suggest different ways of reading.

Intersectional Tendencies in Biblical Scholarship.

Several interpreters interested in gender mechanisms, working on biblical literature or other ancient texts, have noticed that gender cannot be studied in isolation, although they have not explicitly drawn on the theory of intersectionality. They have indeed asked the other question, to ancient texts as well as to contemporary practices, and challenged biblical scholars who have focused on gender to include more complex perspectives.

Delores Williams (1993) was one of the pioneers in her groundbreaking work on the foreign slave woman Hagar in Genesis, discussing how various power aspects were connected, in past and present, such as color, motherhood, slavery, and gender. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has contributed significantly to the discussion by highlighting and remembering non-elite women. She talks about kyriarchal/kyriocentric (from the Greek term for lord) in order to “underscore that domination is not simply a matter of patriarchal, gender-based dualism but of more comprehensive, interlocking, hierarchically ordered structures of domination, evident in a variety of oppressions, such as racism, poverty, heterosexism, and colonialism” (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1999, pp. 1–23). Bernadette Brooten’s (2010) work on female homoerotism and slavery, as well as her research project on feminist sexual ethics, represent important contributions in which social categories such as gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, and religion are connected in mutual ways.

Many biblical characters have complex identities in which several identity categories intersect. A complex web of identity markers construct a cultural complex social environment in which concrete persons with concrete bodies were located. Cross-cutting ties, multiple loyalties, and diverse combination of identities are relevant for describing the environment that biblical interpreters work with. Several identity categories were subject to constant renegotiation, and identity construction often seems to be a work in progress. Even the most prominent person could change status and position during his or her lifespan, due to a variety of reasons. People could move or travel, forced or voluntarily, or could be sick or injured. Jews could be enslaved. A person who was not born a slave could become a slave, but there were also possibilities to be freed from enslavement; the thin line between slave and free was at once an object for fear and hope.

Categories did not operate in isolation but were interconnected and influenced each other. A brief look at the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) will immediately illustrate these points. What kind of person was this character? As a black, castrated Jewish man on his way home from worship in Jerusalem, he seems to collapse several parameters of gender, ethnicity, and status, and intersectional theory can help us see how the various categories are interlocked and mutually construct each other.

Applying Intersectional Theory in Biblical Interpretation.

Intersectionality aims at theorizing intersecting social categories in identity and oppression. What can intersectionality do with biblical studies? Who have tried to apply it in their interpretations?

In the huge amount of reference literature with gender perspectives that have been produced since the mid-1990s, we find several titles such as Women in the Bible, Biblical Women, and Named and Un-named Women in the Old and New Testament. Intersectional awareness would examine such overviews and ask the other question: Are slave women counted as women? Can we read between the lines and find invisible non-elite women? How much attention is given to named or privileged women, and how much attention is given to foreign, disabled or enslaved women or girls?

One strong test case is how the two women in Acts 16 are represented. The purple-cloth trader Lydia in Philippi, who prayed together with other women and converted with her whole household (Acts 16:13, 40), is one of the most prominent women in the New Testament. She is always mentioned among New Testament or early Christian women, as an argument for female leadership. But Paul and Silas also meet another woman in Philippi: we read about an ambiguous encounter with an annoying demon-possessed slave girl who is a fortune-teller. Although she cries out loud the truth about Paul and his fellows, Paul heals her, silences her, and her owners get angry (Acts 16:16–18). This rather strange story, among the few in the Luke-Acts tradition in which a woman is reported as a talking agent, has not been given so much attention from feminists as has Lydia’s story, probably because she is unnamed, enslaved, and seems to belong to an opposing spiritual tradition than Paul. Intersectional critique would challenge the tendency to highlight Lydia and not the truth-talking slave girl as women of the New Testament (Kartzow, 2012, p. 129–132).

Since 2006 intersectionality has been mentioned occasionally at various sessions at the Society of Biblical Literature, most frequently in papers dealing with stories about Hagar in the Hebrew Bible or in early Christian literature or the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Many conversations with neighboring theories, such as queer theory and postcolonial studies, have often taken place.

With the anthology Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, intersectionality as a theoretical concept was given a welcome introduction to the field of biblical studies. The book seeks to continue the conversation started at Harvard Divinity School at a conference titled “Race, Gender, and Ethnicity.” In the introduction, the interdisciplinary concept on intersectionality is connected to replacement of the category of “hierarchy” with the neologism Kyriarchy (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2009).

In the Scandinavian countries biblical interpreters were influenced by the theoretical work of gender scholars and colleagues who had embraced intersectionality since the early 2000s (De los Reyes and Mulinari, 2005). The interdisciplinary Norwegian research project “Jesus in Cultural Complexity” (2008–2011) wanted to use intersectionality in the study of early Christian texts, and in publications and conferences invited international scholars to participate (Cultural Complexity, 2010).

In the 2013 publication in English and German titled Doing Gender—Doing Religion: Fallstudien zur Intersektionalität im frühen Judentum, Christentum und Islam, interdisciplinary and interreligious perspectives are presented, and the connection of intersectionality and the interpretation of religious writings has become a transatlantic dialogue.

Challenging Intersectionality.

Although intersectionality obviously has its weak points and pitfalls, it can help interpreters solve essential challenges of complexity when dealing with ancient texts.

One important task—when theories of intersectionality are traveling from studies of oppression and power to interpretation of ancient texts—is to find relevant categories. What categories to include is an ongoing discussion for intersectional thinkers, often marked by adding “etc.” to the suggested list of categories. The standard gender, sexuality, class, race, age, and health are not necessarily the most important categories for conceptualizing the ancient society. The relevance of the social categories of gender, race, and class are also contested in interdisciplinary discussions; in postwar and postcommunist context especially the latter two terms may seem problematic. If we use class to theorize the difference between slave and free in antiquity, it has some rather different connotation than in Marxist ideology. The differences or similarities between race and ethnicity, as well as the meaning of these terms vis-à-vis nationality or religion in an ancient context, are indeed complex and need to be discussed when intersectionality is used to interpret biblical texts.

For example, if we want to understand the role of Hagar in the Hebrew Bible, Sarah’s slave girl from Egypt who was brought to Abraham because Sarah did not have any children, the category of motherhood would be essential with all its various intersections with slavery, race, and sexuality. Bible interpreters will need to relate stories of her to those of other slave women who gave birth on behalf of their owners, in order to decode how various power structures constructed the vulnerability and destabilizing potential of female slave’s reproductive bodies.

Intersectionality offers a language to talk about cultural complexity and our role in the production of knowledge. Jennifer Glancy has pointed out that “intersectional identities are expressed and negotiated through corporal encounters. Through bodies and embodied exchange, cultural complexity takes place” (Glancy, 2010, p. 362; Eriksen, 2009).

Applying Intersectionality to Biblical Studies: Two Case Studies.

The technique of asking the other question could be used in the interpretation of any given text. When working on Hebrew Bible texts on Joseph in Pharaoh’s household in Egypt, for example, intersectionality will help us see that he is a privileged man, although being a Jew and a former slave. In what ways are gender, class, and ethnicity intersecting in the various stories of Joseph?

The following two texts are rich on interlocked categories and intersectionality enable us to theorize identity and oppression.

The parable of the watchful slaves in Luke 12:35–48.

In this synoptic parable the master leaves the house and leaves one of his male slaves in charge of the household. This wicked slave calculates that it may take a while before the master returns, and he begins to beat the other slaves and eat and get drunk. The social scenario and household hierarchy represented in the parable generates a whole set of intersectional questions, dealing with social class, gender, generation, and violence.

Both Luke and Matthew (Matt 24:42–51) have this parable, but with different terms for slaves (Matt: doulos, Luke: pais). Only Luke divides the beaten slaves into male and female ((Luke 12:45). Both Evangelists put this parable in the mouth of Jesus, and none of them challenges or condemns the slavery institution and gender divided violence on slave bodies.

If intersectionality is used to theorize how social categories intersect in order to understand identity and oppression, we see that slaves represented the margins of the ancient household. For Luke it also makes sense to divide these marginal characters into male and female, but why does he do this? Does the wicked slave beat female slaves in another way than male? Does this gender divide among slaves aim at describing sexualized violence? Or were also male slaves, whose bodies could be penetrated, equally targets of sexualized violence?

By help of intersectionality there are more challenges to this parable. Lukan terminology opens up for a variety of scenarios: either the trusted slave strikes his fellow slaves, as the synoptic parallel in Matthew says (Matt 24:49), or the trusted slave strikes the children. The phrase in Luke 12:45 can be translated as either “male slaves and female slaves” or as “boys and girls” whom the slave manager starts beating. Such physical punishment was probably common in ancient households, where slave bodies were part of their owner’s property, and children had to obey they parents and their caretakers, who could also be slaves.

Overviews or reference books of women or girls in the Bible must include these female slaves, in the same way as the demon-possessed slave girl in Acts 16 should be mentioned alongside Lydia. Female slaves should be made visible as women, who although they were enslaved were also human beings, with reproductive bodies, passion, and pain, with brains, thoughts, ideas, feelings, and dreams. As owned female bodies they had some very specific restrictions and life conditions, and translations should not hide this fact by calling them servants, as if they had a paid work they could choose.

In the parable, Luke constructs ideology and meaning by use of violence and abuse according to power structures in which class, gender, and age intersect. Slavery in antiquity was needed to help free families live proper family lives.

In our age of globalization, class, race, age, and gender also intersect to construct certain power relations, within or outside of families, that which look much like slavery. In addition, the way the Bible can be used in current discussions of family values is of relevance when intersectionality is applied to biblical texts. The conservative nuclear family ideology based on biblical texts faces some major challenges when confronted with early Christian slave bodies, and intersecting structures involving children and women, such as in the Lukan parable. Intersectionality challenges biblical interpreters to ask the other question and theorize the gaps in the ancient sources, in order to engage in structures that uphold hierarchies.

Intersecting categories in Galatians 3:28.

The “baptism formula” in Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) has been called the Credo for feminist theology. By help of intersectionality, and the technique of asking the other question, this verse can be interpreted in specific ways.

This statement in Galatians, within scholarly discussions of equality and hierarchy, is often pitted against the household codes in other letters using a model of pure origins and decline: the household codes represented a reaction against earlier freedom and innovation. The argument goes: Although second- and third-generation Christians took over contemporary patterns of power and dominance, the more authentic Pauline statement (Gal 3:28) functions to reduce or eliminate the hierarchical structure of the household codes.

In the interpretative tradition of Galatians 3:28, nationality/ethnicity, class, and gender are often seen as three separate contrasting categories. The focus is on the binarity or polarity within the three relationship pairs. Intersectionality emphasizes that we cannot add gender to class to ethnicity as representing parallel realities, but we must take into account how the categories mutually influence and construct each other. The statement does not give us three separate contrasts only; we need to couple and combine all of them and then we get eight possible categories:

  • 1. Jewish slave male
  • 2. Jewish slave female
  • 3. Jewish free male
  • 4. Jewish free female
  • 5. Greek slave male
  • 6. Greek slave female
  • 7. Greek free male
  • 8. Greek free female

In theory we can combine these categories, but could they have been combined in practice in Paul’s and the Galatians’ social environment? We now need to ask the other question(s):

  • • Taking into account the strong focus on circumcision in the Letter to the Galatians, are the terms “Jew or Greek” here to be understood for males only? Are they meant to be ethnic categories or religious or racial or national?
  • • If enslavement, at least legally, severed ties to an ethnos and genos, did it make sense to consider a slave either Jewish or Greek?
  • • Could slaves be included in the gender relationship pair? Female slaves were categorized as slaves, and not as women, at least in ideal discourses.
  • • Free is above slave as male is above female in the ancient Mediterranean world, but it is not given who holds privilege and who is subordinated in the relation of Jew and Greek. Does Paul create his own hierarchy here?
  • • Slave/free and male/female are mutually exclusive, but there were several Greek-speaking Jews in the ancient world.

The point here is that intersectionality may help us see the complexity and lead us to new questions to ask. The verse from Galatians 3:28 is first decoded and theorized by help of intersectionality, and then the new theoretical pattern of eight categories has to be challenged by the other question, up and against what we think we know about the social environment of antiquity. By theorizing identity and oppression in this key verse of the New Testament, intersectionality may give interpreters ideas where to look for new insights.

An Intersectional Turn in Biblical Studies?

Intersectionality offers some useful tools when interpreters of the Bible are interested in theorizing oppression and identity. Insisting that categories such as gender, ethnicity, or class cannot be understood in isolation since they are interlocked and construct each other mutually, interpreters are challenged to take into account the extremely complex social environment of the ancient world. The characters we read of in biblical literature, and the way theology, ideology, or history is constructed, are influenced by complex webs of intersecting structures. An “intersectional turn” within the field would represent that some of the complexity and multiplicity of the ancient texts—and their interpreters—would come to the surface as relevant for the production of knowledge for biblical studies.

[See also GENDER; PATRIARCHY/KYRIARCHY; RACE, CLASS, AND ETHNICITY subentry NEW TESTAMENT; RHETORICAL-HERMENEUTICAL CRITICISM; SEXUALITY; and WOMANIST CRITICISM.]

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Marianne Bjelland Kartzow